An eight-story, clear glass box full of cars on South Boulevard that's drawn curious stares for months opened Wednesday: It's Charlotte's first "car vending machine."
Owned and operated by Carvana, the building is on a busy stretch in South End near the Blue Line Scaleybark light rail station. While some officials have expressed concern about having a giant vending machine that sells cars in the midst of a rapidly changing transit and pedestrian corridor, supporters say its footprint is much smaller than a traditional car dealership.
"Our mission is to change the way people buy cars, and our car vending machines bring fun back into car buying," said Carvana founder and CEO Ernie Garcia. The Charlotte machine holds up to 32 cars at a time.
Here's how it works (and it doesn't involve feeding thousands of quarters into a coin slot).
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Customers start at Carvana's website, where they can buy a car online and choose to have it delivered or pick it up at the vending machine. If they choose the latter, they schedule a time to go to the vending machine site, where they receive a silver "commemorative, oversized Carvana coin" that activates the machine with a rumble and transports the vehicle down from the tower to a ground-floor delivery bay.
A robotic lift takes the car down and slides it to the customer, with no human intervention.
Ryan Keeton, Carvana co-founder and chief brand officer, said that the company started to build vending machines when they saw some customers still liked going to a physical location to get their car, even if they prefer to buy online.
"This is pure fulfillment," said Keeton, standing in front of the vending tower. The transaction takes about 15 to 30 minutes, he said, vs. several hours at a dealership. Customers fill out all of the required documentation, sign sales contacts and can arrange financing online. If they trade in a car, Carvana will send a hauler to their house to pick it up.
The company's goal is to be "Amazon for cars," Keeton said.
"You can do it all at home, through technology," he said. "We don't have the overhead of a dealership."
And Keeton has heard all the jokes, which he said the company encourages: No, the cars don't get stuck in the tower. No, you can't shake it for a free one.
Carvana also has vending machines in Raleigh and Nashville as well as two in Florida and four in Texas. The Charlotte machine is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.